All children must come to grips with the news that their parents aren’t infallible.
For many American Jews, something similar may be happening following the recent revelations that President Truman made anti-Semitic comments in his diaries, discovered last week at the Truman Library in his home state of Missouri.
“I think we’re all upset to hear it because it’s so much easier to hold the view of him as the great defender” of Jews and of Israel, said Deborah Dwork, director of the Strassler Family Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. “It was comforting to hold that view, and now that view is challenged.”
Before the diary comments were released, Truman was best known in Jewish circles for making the United States the first country to recognize Israel after the Jewish state was declared in 1948 — and for passing refugee acts that allowed many Jews languishing in displaced persons camps to immigrate to the United States.
But the diary entries reveal another side to the buck-stops-here Truman, who succeeded Franklin Roosevelt as president in 1945 and served in the White House until 1952.
“The Jews, I find, are very, very selfish. They care not how many Estonians, Latvians, Finns, Poles, Yugoslavs or Greeks get murdered or mistreated as” displaced persons, “as long as the Jews get special treatment,” Truman wrote in 1947.
“I know anti-Semitism when I see it. And that’s anti-Semitism,” said Deborah Lipstadt, the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University in Atlanta.
Such comments were not out of character for Truman.
In 1946, he reportedly asked his Cabinet, “If Jesus Christ couldn’t satisfy the Jews while on earth, how the hell am I supposed to?” said Warren Bass, author of “Support Any Friend: Kennedy’s Middle East and the Making of the U.S.-Israel Alliance.”
Truman was not a particularly dedicated Zionist, Bass said. But he was “someone who was committed to alleviating the plight of refugees.”
And that he did: The 1948 and 1950 Displaced Persons Acts that allowed 200,000 additional European refugees, more than 80,000 of them Jews, to enter the United States.
Indeed, Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, remembers passengers on a ship of fellow displaced persons collecting money to send a cable of thanks to Truman for opening up U.S. shores to them after the war.
The entries show “how Truman reacted to being pressured. He would often express anger and exasperation when he was under pressure,” said Mitchell Bard, author of “The Water’s Edge and Beyond: Defining the Limits to Domestic Influence on United States Middle East Policy.”
Right before the United Nations voted to partition Palestine in 1947, Truman received 35,000 letters from Jews supporting the plan, which eventually led to the State of Israel.
Truman reportedly said, “If the Jews would just keep quiet, everything will be all right,” Bard said.
But Truman still committed the United States to vote for the partition plan, and even named a pro-Israel envoy, James McDonald, as the first U.S. ambassador to Israel.
“What’s more important is the substantive decisions that he made. He really is the person who in many ways was responsible for the creation of Israel,” Bard said.
But there’s little doubt that even his supporters will cringe at some of the diary statements.
“The Jews have no sense of proportion,” Truman wrote after former Treasury Secretary Robert Morgenthau called to lobby him to intervene for 4,500 Jewish refugees aboard the Exodus ship, which had been seized by British soldiers as they were seeking entry into Palestine. “Nor do they have any judgment on world affairs.”
Many Jews today might wish that Truman, known for his no-nonsense style, had held his tongue a little more.
“Wouldn’t it have been great to remember Harry Truman as the man who helped” create the State of Israel and alleviate the plight of Jewish refugees, Dwork asked.
But the reality is different: Truman, a Missouri haberdasher before he entered politics, both imbibed and embodied the anti-Semitism of many Americans at the time.
“He was certainly anti-Semitic, he certainly had racist views of all kinds of people — and at the same time, had both personally friendly and commercial relationships with Jews,” Dwork said.
As the diaries also show, Truman didn’t single Jews out.
“Put an underdog on top it makes no difference whether his name is Russian, Jewish, Negro, Management, Labor, Mormon, Baptist he goes haywire. I’ve found very, very few who remember their past condition when prosperity comes,” he wrote.
But the equal-opportunity criticism in such comments failed to mollify Foxman.
“To compare us to those who were killing us makes it a bit worse,” he said.
Truman is not the only former U.S. president whose reputation has suffered from anti-Semitism in recent years.
President Nixon made disparaging comments about Jews while he was in office.
In 1996, declassified White House tapes indicated that Nixon urged his aides to go after Jewish Democrats and at least one Jewish Republican campaign official, according to a story in the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California.
After Watergate, however, Nixon was never held in the same public esteem as Truman — who now appears to have slipped a few steps off his pedestal.
“Here was another hero who crumbled,” Foxman said. Truman is still a friend, “but a blemished friend.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.